supermarket asda basket discount reduced price bread GettyImages-1371981345

Twelve million people. Add up the populations of London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Glasgow, Birmingham and Sheffield, and you’ll be in the right ballpark.

Why does this number matter? Tragically, this is how many people in the UK are living in absolute poverty – across both urban and rural areas – according to recent official estimates. This number is staggering.

Food and poverty are, of course, closely linked. Household food insecurity in the UK has been getting worse. According to the same set of official statistics, the percentage of individuals living in food-secure households was 89% in the financial year ending 2023, down from 93% in the previous year.

It is an indictment on successive UK governments and others in positions of power that so many are facing poverty and household food insecurity. It particularly matters for the food sector. That’s because some businesses are partly responsible through their misplaced actions or inaction.

It manifests in large swathes of the public being unable to eat decent food. Many of the people producing and selling our food are struggling, too. Meanwhile, a lack of access to decent, affordable, nutritious food is leading to deepening health inequalities and a public health crisis.

Rather than further entrenching food surplus redistribution efforts as the answer, we urgently need to address the root causes of poverty: low wages and a dysfunctional social security system. Not to mention skyrocketing rent and mortgage rates, fuel and energy bills.

New polling data from More in Common, commissioned by the Food, Farming & Countryside Commission (FFCC), shows 68% of the public say it is the government’s job to make sure healthy food is affordable to all. High time for a right to good food across the UK?

There are rallying cries not just for more government accountability, but also for greater fairness. In FFCC’s latest polling, 62% wanted greater government intervention to ensure farmers are treated fairly.

So food business leaders need to act on supply chain injustices too. Much as fairness can win votes, I’m a believer that food businesses that treat workers, the public, suppliers, farm animals and nature fairly will benefit and thrive in the long term too.

With the impending arrival of an Agricultural Supply Chain Adjudicator, there’s an opportunity for fairer dealings at, and beyond, the farmgate. Crucially, we’d love to see the legislation change to allow this new adjudicator to share insights with the existing Groceries Code Adjudicator – which strangely it’s not currently allowed to do, even though their remits should intersect. Effective adjudication is essential for ensuring real change at industry level.

We know that many farmers get 1% or less of the price people pay at the checkout for their food. At the same time, people are struggling to afford good food. Where is the money going? Something needs to change.

Of course, the problems of the food system are not only about money. There are too many people disempowered and disengaged from where their food comes from. A lack of access to good food is not just about nutrition – it’s also about culture, wellbeing, connection and belonging. We’re more than just passive consumers at the end of a long, often opaque, chain. We need to foster more ways for people to connect with food and be nourished, beyond the size of their wallets.

Grocery leaders, now is the time to listen to citizen voices and take steps to address poverty in your own communities, including your workforce. They’re depending on you.